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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Planning Commission meeting was preview of fireworks to come at next Town Council meeting

As predicted, by the time the Planning Commission had thoroughly masticated the master plan review of the Rehill subdivision, the advisory on the Edwards Lane affordable housing development, and the preapplication for a comp permit for Greenock Village (more on these subjects in a future story), the members were overtired, drumming their fingers on the mic stands, and ready to call it a night.

Except they couldn’t, because they had additional agenda items requiring immediate action: the long-awaited “dark sky” ordinance and the advisory on the purchase of the YMCA camp. 

By Linda Felaco

I find that the tedium of listening to Planning Commission meetings can be relieved by listening for Chair Ruth Platner to make one of her trademark jaw-dropping assertions of arbitrary authority, and last night she did not disappoint. She repeatedly stated during the discussion of the proposed lighting ordinance that she “didn’t know what the number should be” with respect to the maximum allowable number of lumens under the ordinance, admitting she just copped the figure from the Hopkinton ordinance. So she can’t explain why that number is optimal, but we’re just supposed to obey it on her say-so.

Thankfully, Platner fairly readily acquiesced in removing the ridiculous “lights out at 11” restriction on outdoor lighting in the dark sky ordinance, claiming she’d only put it there to aid with enforcement. But she refused to even consider Building Official Joe Warner’s preference that the trigger for compliance with the ordinance be electrical rather than building permits, saying she didn’t see why it made any difference. Well, Ruth, as a homeowner and taxpaying resident, to me it does make a difference whether there’s any logic in our town ordinances and any rhyme or reason as to the causes and effects spelled out by ordinance. Guess I’m just weird that way.

Yet despite Ruth’s insistence that the ordinance has been ready to go since July, it appears that it’s still not ready for prime time, as Warner’s concerns about enforcement have yet to be resolved. As Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero explained, it’s not just a simple matter of buying Warner a light meter and teaching him how to use it; a number of different factors come into play involving when, where, how, and under what conditions the measurements are taken that give violators a fair shot at having violations dismissed. Yet Ruth remained undeterred in her insistence that the ordinance go to the Town Council for a vote, pronto. She said Hopkinton’s building official had the same concerns but that since they passed it, they haven’t had any problems. Then again, their ordinance doesn’t kick in till 2018, so why would it be a problem now in 2012.

Platner also thumbed her nose at Parks and Recreation Director Jay Primiano’s concerns about the 15-foot height restrictions on light poles making the entire Master Plan for Ninigret Park moot, saying that she couldn’t make the town exempt from the ordinance. Well, of course not, but that’s far from the only way to resolve the issue. She felt that because it was an ordinance, and ordinances can be changed, that the council should just go ahead and pass it as is and then address the issue of the lighted fields at Ninigret Park once a study has been conducted to show that the lighting for the park can’t be accomplished under the 15-foot height restriction. Said study of course having already been done and presented at the December 12 council meeting, for which she was in attendance.

Indeed, it appears that Council President Tom Gentz is already getting a lot of blowback over this issue; he went to the podium to request specific guidance on what to tell people. Bring popcorn for the showdown over this at the next Town Council meeting.

Another interesting tidbit came out of the tail end of the discussion. Mention was made about how long the lighting ordinance has been kicking around. Platner replied that the ordinance was first proposed under the reign of former Town Council President Jim Mageau, who refused to allow Planning to propose ordinances (I imagine because under the town charter, they have no authority to do so), and that in the last Town Council, their sponsor (whoever that was) refused to take the ordinance before the council (although she didn’t say why).

By the time they were done with that issue, they were all ready to rubber-stamp Ruth’s advisory on the proposed Y camp purchase (no, she did not recuse herself, surprise surprise), except for a valiant Gordon Foer, who would not give up on his dream of a playground for kids. Ruth balked at first but then agreed to add an anodyne sentence asking the Land Trust to explore the possibility. She thought maybe some sort of low-tech installation like a rope course might pass muster with the DEM. Or at least she was willing to pretend so in the interest of getting home to Cliff.